Needs: Ours vs. Theirs? Is there a better way?

“I’m really struggling with nursing my 2 year old,” the mother confided. “I can’t say this to very many people because most people just say that I should wean. But that doesn’t feel right to me, either. So I nurse her even though I really don’t feel like it and I resent her for it. I want to meet Sarah’s needs and I want to be the best parent I can for my daughter, but this isn’t working for me.”

This conversation happens often among the parents I work with. These are parents who truly want to put the needs of their young children first. They want to be there for their kids. Sometimes that takes the form of practicing extended breastfeeding or co-sleeping. Other times, it looks like constantly putting the needs of the child or children in front of their own needs.

Sometimes the parents feel that they are putting their child’s needs first because they are little and they want to meet their child’s needs, spoken and unspoken. They’ve internalized a list of parenting “shoulds” that they need to do to have well-adjusted children, without the struggles that many of us came into parenting with- the wounds from our own childhoods. But each of us has a capacity to be present with our kids for a certain amount of time, particularly without significant recharging. And when our children are constantly hooking up their own little batteries to ours, as Pam Leo shared on an interview that I did with her in 2008 about her book, Connection Parenting, we need to make sure that our batteries are charged.

needs - low battery

Some parents wisely recognize that if something isn’t working for them, they need to make a change.

If no one is sleeping well when they co-sleep, they work to find a sleeping arrangement that works for everyone.  Others recognize that they aren’t up to homeschooling and search to find alternatives that everyone would find workable.  However, many parents continue to hook their children up to their depleted batteries and wonder why it isn’t working.

There seems to be a substantial backlash internally within these parents to not be the parents who put their own needs first and disregard the needs of their children.  Our culture has a pervasive undercurrent of, “now I’m the adult and my needs matter more than yours.”  I wonder if part of that comes from the time most of us spent as young children with our needs subjugated and consciously or unconsciously taking in the idea that when we’re older and have children of our own it is the time to meet our own needs.  There isn’t anything wrong with meeting our needs.  In fact, it is necessary and healthy.  But it seems most of us feel that we have only two choices- either meet our own needs and disregard the needs of our children or meet the needs of our children while disregarding our own needs.

What is a parent to do when we feel like it is us vs them?  How do we honor our own needs and still respect child’s needs?

We tend to think of it as either/or, neither/nor, but I believe that we can look at everyone’s needs and find another way that honors and respects everyone.  In fact, we must look at everyone’s needs in order to move forward in a healthy way.  Does this mean that mom must continue to breastfeed or that she must wean?  There aren’t any “shoulds” in this equation.  And there isn’t a formula for determining the best path to take or a “one-sized fits all” approach.

That scares parents at first, but it also means that the solution is going to be co-created based on your own family’s unique needs and experiences.  And that solution is going to work way better than anything you can find in a book!  Uncomfortable feelings are a signal that something is out of balance. We need to look closer to begin to identify what our needs are and then identify what our child’s needs are in this moment.

Sometimes by setting healthy boundaries and recognizing that we can’t meet our child’s every need, we open up the possibilities of connecting in a deeper and more authentic way.  If we aren’t feeling like connecting or doing something our child is asking for in her attempt to connect with us and we do it anyway, we aren’t serving anyone.  The need isn’t met, which leads our child to continue to make the same request.  What the child really needs is to connect deeply with us and they ask to connect in the ways that have worked in the past.  So if that’s breastfeeding or throwing a tantrum, this is what our child will do to get that connection need met.

And what happens when we aren’t able to connect?  Maybe we’re depleted from a long day.  Perhaps we had an argument with our partner or we just aren’t able to meet that need to connect in that moment because we’re doing six other critical tasks at that exact moment.  This is when our children start to feel like a drain on us, like that need is never met.   We feel like we can’t do this connected, conscious parenting thing because we just don’t have enough to give.  But maybe, just maybe, we can’t give it in the way they’re asking us to give it.  But maybe, just maybe, we can give it another way.

Photo Credit: Laural Turner
We need to remember that it isn’t us vs them.  Our needs vs their needs.

What can we do at the end of a long day that will meet everyone’s needs?  Remember that the more that we pull away from our children, the louder they will get to try to attract our attention.  (Ever had the realization that your child’s behavior is always the worst when you have the least capacity to deal with it?  It isn’t an accident…and it isn’t malicious, either.  It is just your child trying to connect in the only way they know how.)

Let’s go back to the young mom with 2 year old, Sarah.  Her daughter needed to connect.  She was asking to connect through nursing and mom knew she wasn’t able to nurse at the end of a long day.  Her daughter needed her mom’s attention and perhaps physical touch.  Nursing was too much for mom in terms of physical touch, but she was willing and able to hold her and read her a story.

Saying something to the child like: “I know you’re asking to nurse, but I see that you’re really wanting to connect with me right now.  Mama just can’t give num-nums right now, but I’d be happy to hold you and read you a story.  We can have num-nums at bedtime” (or whatever you’ve decided your limit is.) Understand that there very well may be some big feelings about the limit, but as Carrie Contey said it our discussion about boundaries, it is better for the child to throw the tantrum than it is for the parent to throw the tantrum!

Be with your child and allow them to have their feelings about it.  Understand that, as Pam Leo says, this is your child’s hurts cup overflowing and they will feel much better when it is emptied.  Be with them and support them through it.  (And get support if this is really overwhelming for you.  It is OK to ask for help with this!)

Making this small shift made a huge difference for both mom and daughter.  Sarah knew where her mom’s limits were and that mom really wanted to meet her needs.  Mom learned that it was all right to set that limit and was able to enjoy the time they were spending snuggling together.  This mother decided that she didn’t need to wean her daughter right now, but was able to set limits around when she was willing to nurse so that she wasn’t feeling resentful of her daughter or her daughter’s needs.

In order to have a healthy relationship with our children, we need to be aware of our own needs.  We can find that balance between meeting our child’s needs and meeting our own needs so that everyone’s needs are respected.  This is what our children need to see.  So set those gentle limits that still honor and respect your child.  It is important for everyone.  Remember, when it isn’t working for you, it isn’t working for them in the long run, either.

Let me know what you think of this topic. I’d love to hear if you have any stories about your needs vs their needs in your own life!

Rebecca Thompson Hitt

Rebecca is the founder of The Consciously Parenting Project, LLC, and author of 3 books (Consciously Parenting: What it really Takes to Raise Emotionally Healthy Families, Creating Connection: Essential Tools for Growing Families through Conception, Birth and Beyond, and Nurturing Connection: What Parents Need to Know about Emotional Expression and Bonding), numerous classes and recordings, and the former co-host of a radio show, True North Parents.

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